The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 9, 2012

Somerset targets mental health, substance abuse in crime system

Dave Sutor

SOMERSET — Somerset County wants to improve its ability to find individuals with mental health illnesses or substance abuse problems within its criminal justice system.

So the commissioners, along with the Somerset County Criminal Justice Advisory Board and Behavioral Health Services of Somerset and Bedford Counties Inc. recently applied for a grant through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program. They were awarded $50,000. The money will cover the cost of the project’s first phase, which will be to collect data from government officials, law enforcement agents, emergency responders, community organizers and others.

“The federal funds will help us develop what they call a system of care that prevents some individuals from entering the criminal justice system, decreases incarceration and provides for successful re-entry (into society),” said project manager Tracy Shultz, a representative of the county’s behavioral health services system.

No in-depth detection program is currently in place.

“This is a huge gap of services in our county,” said Shultz.

Based on a rough estimate, possibly half of the accused criminals or convicts in the county’s criminal justice system could have mental health issues or substance abuse problems, according to Shultz.

“I would think a lot of them would be substance abuse,” said Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk.

The criminal justice board plans to spend the next year collecting data and developing the outline of a plan. The county will be able to apply for more federal funds for the project in the future.

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